The Death of Louis XIV certainly does live up to its title. The newest entry in cinema's third-oldest genre*, the "watch a monarch die" biopic (born with 1895's The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots), starts at close to the exact moment that Louis XIV, King of France (Jean-Pierre Léaud) begins to suffer from the gangrene that will kill him, and it ends SPOILER ALERT about five minutes after he dies. In between, we watch him die, and we watch people watching him die.

I totally get that that doesn't sound like a particularly upbeat night at the movies, and if ever there has been a movie that trumpets appeal to a self-selecting niche audience, it's this one. But if you happen to be a member of that niche, this is mesmerising. Far more than should be rightly possible, given how virtually empty this is at the level of story, or just about anything else.

The thing is, it's basically minimalism, and whatever the medium, minimalism doesn't mean "this is nothing"; it means "this is so unbelievably little that it even the most microscopic events have crushing weight and importance". The Death of Louis XIV is about one individual thing in such elaborate, exhausting detail, it manages to be about seemingly everything else. We are all, after all, going to die. Most of us will not die the way Louis XIV did. Therefore, by virtue of the curious paradox that the most specific narratives always end up feeling the most universal, watching the death of Louis XIV encourages us to examine what that tells us about all the other deaths that aren't major events of national importance.

But that's an exercise for the individual viewer. Whatever generalities we might extract from the film, the specifics are really quite tremendously interesting and good. The perverse irony that fuels Thierry Lounas & director Albert Serra's script is that in dying, Louis XIV is degraded and humiliated by the exact same culture he used in life to puff himself up. That is, this is a movie about slow, painful death as a matter of courtly interest. Insofar as there's any particular narrative content to talk about, it's that the ailing king is surrounded by what feels like tens of dozens of doctors, nobles, courtiers, and hangers-on, all treating his disease as just the latest intrigue of the man whom they've all spent their entire careers finding very intriguing. The most overt example of this, and easily the sickest joke in a movie that never wants for a vein of unstressed black comedy, is the way that the crowded room of attendants bursts into applause when the king manages to have a small bite to eat, despite the protestations of his roiling stomach. If the God-knows-how-many fictitious and historically-minded stories of royalty and life in various European courts over the last millennium generally tend towards a sort of gawking lifestyle porn, fixated on the extravagances of food, place, posh clothing (not for nothing is the genre called "costume drama"), and a quantity of wealth so great that it ceases to have any meaning. The Death of Louis XIV isn't the first counter-balance to this trend, not by any means, but it is a very good one, reducing the affairs of court to a bunch of interchangeable, anonymous figures staring with plaster expressions at the sullen king, growing reedier and more sallow with every new scene.

The flipside to this, or maybe it is the natural and necessary extension of this, comes in how Léaud plays Louis XIV. The actor, one of the great icons of French film history (which has lead to at least a few critics describing this film as a "death of cinema" tract; that might or might not be a justifiable reading, but it's sure as fuck reductive), drills into the basic reality of the situation: here is an old man in extreme physical discomfort, growing more uncomfortable, and in the process shifting from a wan expectation that he'll get better, to a great fear that he shall not, to a weary annoyance that the sooner he's dead, the sooner he doesn't have to deal with all of this shit anymore. It's a narrowly-channeled performance, and certainly not much of a tax on Léaud's resources as an actor, but still basically perfect for what the film is and what it needs. It takes the imposing, damn near legendary figure of Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil, and turns him into a sick, crabby, hurting old man, with Léaud's sullen face allowing all sorts of pathetic human emotions play by, not the regal reserve of a king.

This nasty courtly pageant of death voyeurism is captured in what I'd like to call, with all due nervousness about hyperbole, some of the most distinctive cinematography of the 2010s. Stylising a period-set film to resemble the fine art of the period in question is nothing new, but it's virtually never done this well. The only other "painterly" cinematography in recent memory that even starts to approach how well The Death of Louis XIV re-creates its aesthetic is 2014's Mr. Turner, and as much as I adore that movie, this is more precise. For one thing, Serra and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg have clearly studied the composition of late Baroque painting backwards and forwards; the intensified still poses to suggest incipient movement are all over (and since it's a movie, the movement even comes, which somehow makes the poses seem even stronger), as well as the careful balance of diagonal lines and empty space, and the tentative use of depth, more as a flavoring than a real compositional element. There's also something, God knows what, that Ricquebourg has achieved with color and texture: this feels like a painting, from the blacks that are actually more of a deep, dark walnut, to the vaguely yellow aura of an old painting that was with lacquer or varnish that has begun to seriously show its age. Even the just-smudgy lines between dark and light has been re-created, thanks to some minutely soft focus (for that matter, Ricquebourg's understanding of the importance of lots of patches of dark, even when they feel in no way motivated by realism, adds yet another level of authenticity.

It's unbearably beautiful, and on top of that, it makes the film seem immensely weird: if Léaud's surly performance is disarmingly contemporary and humane, the visual aesthetic puts us right back into a detachment, an awareness that all this happened centuries ago, to people with vastly different cultural mores than our own. Serra never shies away from that detachment: this is a clinical, objective film about how bodies degrade, and the extremely prominent aesthetic helps to divorce the viewing experience from the desire to sympathise with the king.

At any rate, it's a singular, captivating experience, slowed to such a crawl that it doesn't even register as "slow cinema", but as a timeless spiral into oblivion (it is, beyond question, a boring movie: it has to be. Increasing boredom for all concerned, not least the sick person, is intrinsic to the process being shown). It's meditative in a much more literal sense than that word usually means in a cinematic context. Now, I happen to be a uniquely well-suited viewer for this material: it rewards my affection for slow cinema, French history, movies that draw from other visual arts, and 17th and 18th Century European painting styles. That's a hell of a particular intersection. But surely someone, somewhere out there share my sickness, and for that person, I can happily give this film my highest recommendation. For all the rest of you... I mean, it definitely isn't like anything else you're likely to have seen, so there's that.



*Documentary came first, slapstick comedy came second.